Spread of Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Buddhist monk Rennyo established a base for proselytizing in Yoshizaki, in Japan’s Echizen Province; as a result of his efforts, the Jōdo Shinshū sect spread through northwestern Honshū.

Summary of Event

The Japanese terms Jōdo Shin and Jōdo Shinshū are usually translated as True Pure Land Buddhism, since jōdo means “pure land,” shin means “true,” and shū means “religion” or “faith.” The roots of Pure Land Buddhism can be traced to northwestern India in the first century c.e. after the Theravāda and Mahāyāna forms of Buddhism had emerged as the two major approaches to the religion. The Theravāda tradition emphasized the efforts of individual believers to achieve enlightenment, especially through entering monasteries. The Mahāyāna tradition focused more on enlightened beings, or bodhisattvas, who could help ordinary humans achieve enlightenment and salvation. Among the Indian sutras, or sacred writings, several scriptures described the work of an enlightened being, the Bodhisattva Dharmākara (literally, “buddha to be”), who meditated and struggled to establish a perfect realm, or pure land, where faithful followers of Buddhism could be reborn. Dharmākara became the Buddha Amitābha or Amida. Jōdo Shinshū[Jodo Shinshu] Buddhism;Jōdo Shinshū[Jodo Shinshu] Hōnen Shinran Rennyo

The Pure Land school of Mahāyāna Buddhism did not establish itself widely in India, but it did spread to China. Religion;Japan In China, the idea that expressions of devotion to the ideals of the Amida Buddha Amida Buddha could lead to rebirth in the Pure Land became a part of monastic practice in many locations. Chinese lay societies devoted to the Amida Buddha also grew. Religion;China As Japan adopted Buddhism from China, Pure Land Buddhism began to become part of Japanese religious history. Many other types of Buddhism required extensive periods of time in monasteries and years spent in learning or meditation. Because Pure Land Buddhism concentrated on expressions of faith, it had a special appeal to ordinary people in Japan.

One of the earliest figures in True Pure Land Buddhism was the monk Hōnen, who entered the monastery on Mount Hiei when he was thirteen and emerged to teach Pure Land Buddhism to people of all social classes in 1175. One of Hōnen’s disciples, Shinran, who had also been a monk at Mount Hiei before leaving to follow Hōnen, developed a radical version of Pure Land, known as the True Pure Land. According to Shinran, monastic renunciation and meditation were much less important than the simple and sincere recitation of a statement of faith in the Amida Buddha, such as the Nembutsu: “Namu Amida Butsu” (“I put faith in the Amida Buddha”).

Ten years after Shinran’s death, his daughter built a mausoleum for him at Otani, east of Kyōto. The mausoleum became the site of a temple, which eventually became known as Honganji Honganji , or Temple of the Original Vow. The abbots of Honganji were direct descendants of Shinran, passing the office from father to firstborn son.

Rennyo became the eighth abbot of Honganji in 1457. He was the illegitimate son of the previous abbot, Zonnyo, and because of his illegitimacy, his claim to the leadership of the monastery provoked some controversy. As soon as he came into office, he began making contact with various Buddhist groups that had been influenced by Shinran and recruiting new members for Honganji. Some of Rennyo’s most effective teaching was in the form of letters to the faithful. He began his efforts in the province ofŌmi, and his first pastoral letter is dated 1461.

Under Rennyo, the doctrines of Shinran spread rapidly. The dominant Tendai Tendai sect of Mount Hiei, from which Shinran had split, became alarmed at the challenge of Rennyo’s teachings. In 1465, the monastery of Mount Hiei sent an army to attack and destroy Honganji. Rennyo moved farther north, to Yoshizaki in Echizen Province along the road of the Hokuriku seaboard. There, after several years of moving from place to place with an image of Shinran, he established himself in 1471. In the meantime, theŌnin War had begun in 1467, inaugurating an era of Japanese history that would come to be known as the Sengoku Jidai, or Warring States period. With warfare and social disorder throughout the country, the people were ready for new beliefs and new views of life. Warring States period (Japan, 1477-1600);and Buddhism[Buddhism]

In the area of Hokuriku, Rennyo built popular support for Shinran’s Pure Land Buddhism by first traveling to villages and temples and preaching his beliefs. After he had established a widespread following, he continued to spread the faith by writing more pastoral letters, most of which were composed after his move to the Hokuriku coast. By 1475, he had a sufficiently widespread following that he could move back to the Kyōto area. Initially, he made his headquarters at Deguchi, near the location of modernŌsaka. There, he continued to write letters encouraging what he saw as the true religion, condemning improper behavior, and opposing false teachings.

Rennyo and his followers decided on a new site for rebuilding the Honganji temple in 1478. For the next five years, laborers worked on the magnificent temple complex at Yamashina, a suburb of Kyōto. The buildings, with their beautiful gardens, moats, and bridges, lent additional prestige to the faith that Shinran had handed down to Rennyo.

Jōdo Shinshū underwent several changes under Rennyo’s direction. An annual ceremony known as the Hoonko, which had long been performed in memory of Shinran, became one of the most important rituals at Honganji. Previously a modest affair dedicated to remembering the work of Shinran, the Hoonko became a large-scale service similar in some respects to a religious revival meeting. Rennyo also gave new emphasis to the hymns and chants authored by Shinran. The recitation of faith had taken a number of forms in sacred inscriptions before Rennyo’s time, but Rennyo established the words “Namu Amida Butsu” as the standard form. Perhaps most important, Rennyo created a stable and extensive institutional framework for his religious tradition. Honganji became the top of a pyramid of religious communities, extending down through mid-level temples to various local congregations.


Before Rennyo’s time, Jōdo Shinshū was a minor sect on the margins of Japanese society. Rennyo transformed it into one of Japan’s most influential schools of Buddhism and into an important political and social force. Shinran’s True Pure Land Buddhism had split into diverse, often conflicting factions. Through his teaching and constant work of organizing, Rennyo brought these into a single network of religious communities and established the standard forms of devotion for his followers.

Jōdo Shinshū, as it was reorganized and spread by Rennyo, offered a version of Buddhism that could appeal to the masses of people, who were unable to dedicate their lives to meditation and study as monks. This mass appeal made it consistent with the interests of new social groups in Japanese society, such as merchants and nonaristocratic soldiers. Jōdo Shinshū also appealed to villagers in Rennyo’s time and after, since central political control of villages in this disorderly period loosened and villages sought some degree of self-governance. With its deep roots in the lives of villages and its great popular following, Honganji itself became a political power in Japan.

Rennyo himself became a popular figure in Japanese tradition and literature. He was the source of popular anecdotes and stories among the common people of Japan. Legends about Rennyo and his teachings have appeared in drama and even in modern literature. The novel Kuroi ame (1965; Black Rain, 1969), by Ibuse Masuji, for example, includes a scene in which a layperson uses one of Rennyo’s letters for a funeral service after the atomic destruction of Hiroshima.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Amstutz, Galen D. Interpreting Amida: History and Orientalism in the Study of Pure Land Buddhism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. Concerned with the ways in which non-Japanese have studied and interpreted Jōdo Shinshū. The first chapter, on the background of the religion, gives a good historical summary of the faith’s development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dobbins, James C. Jodo Shinshu: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002. A detailed examination of the development, structure, and beliefs of Shin Buddhism that provides the perspectives of both modern scholars and the religion’s adherents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kitagawa, Joseph. Religion in Japanese History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. First published in 1966 and reissued in 1990, this is a classic overview of the history of Japanese religion by a University of Chicago professor regarded as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the history of religion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rogers, Minor, and Ann Rogers. Rennyo: The Second Founder of Shin Buddhism. Fremont, Calif.: Asian Humanities Press, 1992. One of the few books to deal exclusively with Rennyo, this volume contains annotated translations of his major pastoral letters.

1467-1477: Ōnin War

1477-1600: Japan’s “Age of the Country at War”

Mar. 5, 1488: Composition of the Renga Masterpiece Minase sangin hyakuin

Beginning 1513: Kanō School Flourishes

1532-1536: Temmon Hokke Rebellion

1549-1552: Father Xavier Introduces Christianity to Japan

1550’s-1567: Japanese Pirates Pillage the Chinese Coast

1550-1593: Japanese Wars of Unification

Sept., 1553: First Battle of Kawanakajima

June 12, 1560: Battle of Okehazama

1568: Oda Nobunaga Seizes Kyōto

1587: Toyotomi Hideyoshi Hosts a Ten-Day Tea Ceremony

1590: Odawara Campaign

1592-1599: Japan Invades Korea

1594-1595: Taikō Kenchi Survey

Oct., 1596-Feb., 1597: San Felipe Incident

Oct. 21, 1600: Battle of Sekigahara

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